"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29: 11

Friday, October 6, 2017

B2B - Togo to Nigeria

At the end of Benin I got to ride across Benin from the Togo border to the Nigerian border with my Bestest Benin Biking Buddy - Sharon.

Sharon was a pharmacist from Canada who was onboard for the Benin field service. Together with Saulo, Courtney and Tertius she joined me on several cycling adventures. In January we came up with the idea of riding border to border (B2B). Because of her on call schedule she was limited to one of two dates in April and May. Then in March I mentioned the idea to a friend, Hanno from South Africa, who works for MTN in Benin. Hanno had been onboard for Easter with his family and we had ridden to Ouidah and back (about 80 km) on Easter Monday. As we recovered in his pool we discussed the B2B ride and how to do it. He had a driver and was keen so we set a date of 21 May. Due to the distance - about 132 km we estimated - we decided to do it on roadies rather than MTBs. Tertius had left his roadie onboard so I asked if Sharon could borrow it and Hanno said he would try and borrow one as he only had a MTB.

Everything fell into place and Hanno picked us up with his driver - Mr Edwardo - at 0500 on Sunday morning.

Loading up at 0500 on the dock

We made it to the Togo-Benin border by about 0640 and were on our way by 0700. Lots of strange looks from the locals.

The three amigos at the Togo-Benin border

Sharon at the Togo-Benin border

Sharon and I feeling fresh at the Togo-Benin border

First break - Mono River

Just after our first break Hanno dropped back to take a phone call and said he would catch us up. Well, we soft pedalled for a while and then stopped when he did not appear. Ten minutes later the car appeared with Hanno's bike on the roof. He had snapped his chain and thought his day was done. No such luck. I had a chain breaker in my tools and quickly knocked out the damaged link and reconnected it two links shorter.


Up to Ouidah the riding was really scenic and the traffic light. But after Ouidah and into the outskirts of Cotonou the traffic became heavy and chaotic. Plus it was seriously hot by now - 40 degrees.

Outskirts of Cotonou - crazy traffic

Crazy hot - 40 degrees C

Our three trusty steeds

Last break - toll gates outside Cotonou

We did it - Nigeria-Benin border

Job done

Happy but exhausted
Final stats - 134 kms, 5 hours and 20 minutes, 25 kph, average temperature 33 degrees C, max temperature 44 degrees C.

The Garmin link:

B2B - Togo to Nigeria: Distance 133.82 km | Time 5:20:49 | Speed 25.0 kph | Elevation 326 m

The Strava link:

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Our kids ashore in Benin

Harry dancing at patient Naomi's discharge celebration 

One of the reservations I had about joining Mercy Ships, was how it would affect our 3 children.  I mean, what is it like to grow up on a ship, that changes location every few months, with kids from around the world as your classmates, remote from your extended family?  And how does this change you for the rest of your life?

We actually said when we started this journey, that if our children return home with more compassion and understanding of other peoples, then it will have been all worthwhile.  Well, in Benin, we were fortunate to see just that.

Firstly, Harry befriended a patient from Nigeria, Naomi.  At 15 years of age, Naomi's legs were bent and would not straighten.  She had been in a wheelchair for a number of years and came to the ship to be operated on by Dr Frank Haydon.  She then underwent 8 months of intensive physiotherapy to get her walking again.  She even walked down the gangway!  After patients have worked so hard, it is wonderful to celebrate their healing with them in a dance party.  Harry wanted to be part of Naomi's celebration and so he invited his teacher and classmate along.  They all chalked their hair and danced the morning away.  It was a huge blessing to see him so excited to be part of her healing and wanting others to share the joy.
Harry & I with Naomi and her Mum, Evelyn
The hair chalking pose

We also continued visiting the HOPE (Hospital OutPatient Extension) Centre in Benin for Sunday church services.  The services are always full of music, drumming and energy - plus you get to watch the patients' transformation in a regular fortnightly basis.  What changed this year, is how much more comfortable our boys were with the patients.
Mark's Jenga buddy (& Dad) at the Hope Centre

Jenga is a game that crosses all language barriers - Mark had some epic battles where the blocks resembled the Leaning tower of Pisa - yet still didn't fall.  Everyone sitting in the immediate vicinity was holding their breath when it finally toppled. He loved going back and other boys would find the Jenga blocks when they saw him arrive.

Jack really enjoyed going to the HOPE Centre and making cardboard ships with the patients.  He preferred to have a purpose in the visit - and this proved a great one.  He enjoys teaching and is a patient instructor.

What is really interesting about all of this, is how happy the younger patients are when they see our kids.  Our kids have become happy to break down barriers of language and culture with a game - Jenga, UNO, even thumb wrestling - it helps everyone to feel at ease.  And whilst they do this, they have realised that they are making someone's rehab, someone's waiting on results or someones' pain a little easier to manage.

We don't know how our time onboard this ship will affect our boys for the rest of their lives.  However, we know that one thing that they will take away from these years is a greater level of compassion and understanding of other's pain - and a lack of fear of those who look different to them or have experienced a life far more arduous that their own.  And that for us, is totally worthwhile.

Smiles say it all
Working together to build a mini ship - Friendship

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A little girl called Gifty

Gifty - before
I don't get little girls.  I have spent the majority of my working life surrounded by men and, Mick and I have three boys of our own. I get boys. I understand them and how they tick. I like how they are loud, energetic and messy.  In fact, despite the fact that many of my relatives and friends have little girls - I have only ever changed one girls nappy (diaper).  So - I'm not used to little girls and I rarely connect with them as patients.

However, sometimes they connect with you.  Rewind three months to January, when we started back in our routine of visiting the HOPE Centre every second Sunday for the patients' church service.  Going to the HOPE Centre is a way for our family to see the Mercy Ships mission unfold before our eyes.  Patients who live far away, come to stay before being admitted to the hospital.  We see the befores.  Some of them are quite confronting to see - especially for our boys.  Of course, once you sit with the patients, sing with them, play games with them - you don't see the "confronting" at all - you see the person.  
Then later on, we see the afters when they are discharged from the hospital.  It is easy when you've seen the afters, to forget about the befores - such is the radical change for so many of our patients.

 Gifty in D Ward with Joyce - her incredibly strong albino Mama
So this is how we came to know Gifty - she sat on us at a service one Sunday.  She decided that Mick and I needed to be sitting differently and proceeded to rearrange us as she saw fit.  She climbed all over us - putting our arms on each others shoulders and my head against Mick's.  I felt like a piece of plasticine.  And all of this was done without talking - as Gifty had a very large cleft in the middle of her face.  Essentially, she had no nose or top lip shape.  However, what she was missing in facial features, she made up for in personality.  So that is how we became friends.

Gifty, and her mum, Joyce are from Liberia in West Africa.  They both speak English as well as their mother tongue.  It's always wonderful to be able to communicate with patients - but even easier when you are not using a second language to do so.

Wanting a photo of her "Ship Mum"
We followed Gifty into the hospital for her very complex surgery.  She had her cleft lip and palette repair, had a nose created and also some cranial manipulation around her eyes.  It was a massive operation for a little 5 year old.  And she was not very happy in hospital. She wanted to go back and play in the HOPE Centre again as soon as possible.  But first, she needed to rest.  This gave Joyce and I a chance to get to know each other during visiting hours.  We played a lot of UNO of course and some other games as well. Actually, it was easy to know when Gifty was starting to feel less pain - she wanted to join in and slither of her personality began to resurface, albeit for short periods of time.

Much improved writing
Finally, she was allowed to leave the hospital and return to the HOPE Centre - visiting Outpatients frequently to get her wound checked out and for any other issues.  And so the waiting begins.

Hospital waiting is dead boring in Australia.  People sit there for hours - staring out the window.  We really are at the mercy of medical professionals - as they decide the best course of action for our loved ones.  I have really come to appreciate that it is so not different on the ship - the patient is discussed with all facets of the medical community - all away from their home, their windows, in air conditioning and waiting.  How boring is that?
Always time to play

In the HOPE Centre, they have activities like singing, board games and craft.  There is a big group of people, united as they undergo a similar experience in physical transformation. Often this includes therapy - physical therapy to get seized joints working again or learning to do something for the first time.  For Gifty, once her physical wounds were beginning to heal, it was time to get working on speech therapy.  We don't have a speech therapist on the ship - mainly because our cleft lip and palette patients tend to be either adults who need no motivation to work on speaking correctly or babies - who if corrected early enough, won't have any speech issues.  Of course, there are always a few kids that fall into the gap like Gifty.  Which means they can already talk fine, thanks and they don't want to work on doing something that is hard when they could be playing with friends elsewhere. Then throw into the mix, Dieticians, who take on the task of speech therapy with a good guide; and some willing volunteers and you get the idea of how it works.

So how do you make talking fun?  With bubbles of course.  With straws. With funny noises.  With 
colouring in.  And with learning letters and numbers.  So that is how Gifty, Joyce and I really got to know each other. And wow did she improve.  She became really careful in tracing her letters, rather than just making lots of colours all over the page.  She was getting louder when she was talking, as opposed to whispering in my ear.  And she was back to her normal self, running me to greet with a big hug and taking my hand, ready to learn.

And just like that, I've changed.  A little girl has stolen my heart.  Joyce asked for my photo one day, so she can show her family at home, who Gifty's ship Mum was - it took me a moment to realise that she meant me. I'm no longer a Mum who sees herself as very much a Mum of boys - I have had the privilege of sharing the joy of the gift that is little "Gifty".

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Miracles do happen..an update from Madagascar

Remember Minette and Miliarne?  Those amazing young girls who were fistula patients in Madagascar last year? If you don't remember them, these are the links to first Minette's story: http://africandunnes.blogspot.com/2015/11/minette.html

Minette (left) and Miliarne - last year before the ship sailed
This was where we left them.  Fortunately, our good friend, Natalie, has stayed in Madagascar and is  working at the clinic founded by Mercy Ships, now operated by Freedom from Fistula.  What is even better is since we know Natalie, we get to hear about the patients that were not yet healed when we sailed out of Madagascar.

So first for Miliarne.  I am not a medical person - the details of Miliarne's fistula are lost on me.  However, there are some things I understand - they are universal.  I understood the tears when Miliarne was leaving the HOPE Centre last year - because there was nothing more Mercy Ships could do to repair her fistula.  And I understood that there was still a glimmer of hope that Freedom from Fistula may have a "super surgeon" who would look at her case.  

A crew member recently gave an update on Miliarne - letting us all know that several different surgeons had examined her and decided that the surgery was not possible.  So, with this in mind, one surgeon decided to take one last look to be sure that there really was nothing that could be done to repair her injuries.  And amazingly enough, they were no longer there.  No fistula.  No scar tissue.  All gone.  All healed.  A total miracle.  Amazing.

Natalie - now heading up the Obstetric Fistula clinic
Now for Minette - only a partial update but one full of hope.  I saw a text message from Natalie stating that Minette was having surgery today - 12th April in Madagascar.  They were covering Minette in prayer and really hopeful of a similar outcome to Miliarne. I know that God is a God who can heal because He did the impossible with Miliarne.  Several Doctors - all with the same opinion - declared Miliarne inoperable and not heal-able and that was without surgery. So please pray for a positive outcome for Minette. Pray for the Doctors and the Nurses - for wisdom and discernment.  Pray for complete healing.

Now Natalie is enjoying some much earned rest at home in Chicago - so we may not know how Minette's surgery went for a few more days.  However, when I do hear from her, I will make sure to let you know.

And an even newer update from Natalie - and a beautiful postscript to this story:- Best wake up news ever:

Thanks for your prayers.  God is good!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

January 2016 Update

I saw today that we only have 120 days of the Benin field service remaining. Wow, time goes fast. Hammattan has continued, including the generally dry weather with only one massive thunderstorm one night. There was so much water that the roofs of the tents on the dock (outpatients and physiotherapy) collapsed under the weight of water. After a lull over Christmas the hospital is back in full swing. The eye program has started and is achieving great things. I was told that the national average number of cataract surgeries for Benin is 80. We have done over 160 already this month.

Tammy started working in Communications and has found a niche with the creative crew. She gets to organise them - which is no mean feat! It has been fascinating to learn how the marketing arm of the charity works and what are the drivers. There are some incredibly talented individuals working there and an awesome boss - so it's been a great start so far. She gets to practise her French with the day crew, Emeline, who sits beside her and is signed up for the onboard tutoring to keep it going. Bonne courage!
The lovely card Tammy received for teaching swimming, signed by all the kids.
Mick has continued to be very busy but the work load is easing a bit with almost full manning albeit a little in-experienced which means he spends a lot of his day answering questions. February manning looks good but another “train-smash” of shortages is looming in March. During the month we successfully bunkered another 210,000 litres of fuel. Mick dived just once. The visibility was “fine” at 2 metres until the ship ahead of us started its main engine in order to move forward 300 metres and the visibility went to 15 cm. We conducted propulsion test with a couple of hiccups – Main Engine 1 would not clutch in normally and had to be clutched in locally. Mick is still trying to solve this. He has had several other challenging tasks including repairing a governor, fitting and setting up 2 generator governors and overseeing the replacement of a partially wiped camshaft bearing and replacement of a camshaft segment. This required purchasing some liquid nitrogen from Togo to shrink fit the new bearings (- 195 degrees C).

Mick has started intensive French classes at Institute Fran├žais 3 evenings a week which is taxing after a full day’s work but satisfying.

School has started with a bang in early January. Almost immediately the workload came on but all seem to be settled in to the alternate school year now. We are thrilled that Jack and Mark are growing in their independence, with regard to academics. Harry took longer to settle in but is on track now. He had two weeks of afternoon swimming school with Tammy as his teacher and they are still on speaking terms. ­čśČ Quite seriously, it was a great end to each day and all the kids really improved.
The recently opened Italian gelato cafe is very popular with our boys & their friends
February is often a tumultuous month onboard as crew members have to indicate what their plans are for the next field service in Cameroon in August. We are still working out whether we should stay beyond December 2017. We have seen in our time onboard, that God calling us here, does not mean that it will be easy. More so, the challenges are the means by which He draws us close to Him to lean on His strength and rely on His guidance. Hence our request for prayer. Our support base has grown and we are no longer relying on our own savings to pay our onboard living costs only for our holidays - this seemed such an insurmountable obstacle when we began our service. Yet He has provided.

Thank you for your support - That was January